By Dr. Ed Connors
I offer the following blog in response to a request to help people to determine the terms that respectfully identify Indigenous people when referring to our people. I share these thoughts in a form that is common among traditional indigenous people. For example, I do not attempt to tell you what to do or not do but instead I offer teachings in a story telling form that hopefully enables you to extract the information that will enable you to make the appropriate decisions. I have also used this sharing format in order to highlight that Indigenous thought continues to exist and that despite generations of effort to assimilate Indigenous people, this form of thought and being remains. In this regard distinct differences remain that distinguish First Peoples from the New Comers to Turtle Island (North America).
Indian, Native, Aboriginal, Indigenous, First Nations, First Peoples – Which Is Correct?
Ever since Europeans had contact with the inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America) over 500 years ago they have been creating names in their languages in an attempt to create identifiers that lump all first inhabitants of Turtle Island into one group.
The first attempt resulted from Columbus’s navigational errors, which lead him to believe that he had landed in India. Hence we became Indians in the minds of Europeans. My uncle recalled this history with giving thanks that Columbus wasn’t searching for Turkey! Since that unfortunate day the newcomers to Turtle Island have continued to search for labels that define all human beings who first lived upon this land.
As the relationship has shifted slowly from one of power and domination towards a more civil relationship of equality, the settler population has become increasingly interested in creating terms in their languages that are more acceptable to the first inhabitants of Turtle Island. These attempts have taken us through several revisions, each of which has provided for increased input from the First Peoples of Turtle Island to define who we are in a foreign language. As this debate has unfolded it has become increasingly complex and personal. (see Wikipedia Talk: Aboriginal Peoples in Canada/ Archive 1).
Despite these efforts to rename us in foreign languages the First Peoples of these lands have formed our own terms that identify who we are in our own languages. For example, in our language, which the settlers had labeled as Mohawk, we refer to people, human beings or original people as onkwehonwe. We further refer to our nation as Kanien’keha’:ka which translates into English as “people of the flint”. In addition, we identify ourselves as Haudenosaunee, which translates into English as “they made the house.” This is a reference to what settlers called the Iroquois Confederacy. So as you can see we have a number of ways in which we identify ourselves. All original people of Turtle Island have their words that identify who they are. So when it comes to agreeing to identifiers that accurately reflect who we are as First Peoples of this land, it becomes extremely complex and personal, not to mention political.
The best advise that I can give to settlers to our lands is that if you wish to form respectful and equal relationships with the original peoples of Turtle Island is to learn about how we identify ourselves and use these terms whenever it is possible when referring to us.
We no longer wish to be redefined just as you do not need to be unless you chose to be. When attempting to use an identifier of original inhabitants that is commonly understood by all peoples currently inhabiting Canada, perhaps Indigenous, First Peoples or Original Peoples in English capture more closely who we are in relationship to our lands. However, even these terms pose some difficulties for the Inuit and Metis people who have there own understandings of these English words. So once again, determining what is the correct and respectful way to refer to a people comes down to asking them how they prefer to be named.
I know that these guidelines do not clear up all the points of confusion regarding this issue. However, hopefully they provide some guidance on how to proceed as we move forward with our efforts to form improved relationships between the original inhabitants of Turtle Island and the more recent inhabitants.
Dr. Ed Connors